‘Not a penny’s worth,’ ‘Thoroughbred’ are some of the phrases my granddad and his peers often used. For people of his generation, most of them agriculturists who had their education in Tamil, English words like ‘counterpane’ and ‘hearth’ flowed flawlessly in their everyday conversations in their native language, Baduga. In a hill town, the remnants of colonial rule stretch far beyond language.
The winding Ghat roads to The Nilgiris, in the South of India, take you to a time capsule protected place. Be it the buildings with characteristics of Indo- Saracenic style like symmetrical fronts, wooden floors and saltbox roofs or the Victorian era churches, time stands still in the hill towns of the district.
When John Sullivan, the then collector of Coimbatore district, arrived in Nilgiris in 1819 after a weary and trepidatious journey, least did he know the cross-cultural influence would stretch beyond centuries.
The British bureaucrats had heard some tales about the magnificence of the mountains and John Sullivan had planned an expedition to verify the stories floating around. The trek was not an easy one and after much trials and loss of lives of the members of the legion, they arrived at a plateau. It was the beginning of another era in both the landscape and culture of the mountains.
What Sullivan saw there was an amalgam of tribes interdependent on each other. The astute and level headed administrator that he was, Sullivan did not disturb the prevailing harmony and the ecosystem of the place. He let the natives manage their interests and argued that the indigenous people had rights over their land.
He wrote to the government of Madras that the place would be an ideal destination for rejuvenation and revival of wounded soldiers. For centuries later, the mountains would remain a haven for the impaired seeking solace, tranquillity and restoration.
British in The Nilgiris
The Raj later set the military cantonment in Ootacmund (Ooty) and made the town the summer capital of Madras presidency. During the days of renaissance of the hills, when the roads and rail tracks were built, the supervisors learnt that the locals were not suited for hard labour and hired labourers from the neighbouring plains. It may have been the ways set by the predecessors or the change in ethos induced by the high altitudes, tales of the brutality of the Raj that echoes across India are absent in these mountains, among the locals.
My late nonagenarian granddad had recounted numerous tales of the courteousness and cordiality that prevailed in the mountain community during the days of his youth (pre-independence). He would tell how his British master in the State plantation that he worked for lent him scales and other weighing instruments overnight for use in his own estates. Another Englishman to whom he supplied milk rewarded him handsomely at the end of five years as he had not missed a day of delivery.
In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, locals were employed on a large scale in plantations and English homes. By then communication between the two races was effortless and there was said to prevail bonhomie among the mountain people irrespective of their appearance.
My late grandmother would tell stories of her father, a writer of official documents in a large-scale plantation and his hunting expeditions with his employers. She would beam every time she recollected the evenings after his hunt and how the master would have given a large share of the meat to them, asking for it to be distributed among the others in the village while taking a smaller portion for his family.
By the time of independence, when the English population in The Nilgiris had to leave the district in a jiffy, a certain intimacy prevailed as the locals had adapted to many aspects of the alien culture. The cross-cultural influences are stark even today.
The pine, conifers and wattles thrust into the vegetation by early English settlers dominate the landscape today. The impact does not stop there. It would not be surprising to walk into a traditional native house in a row and find a large English style dresser with intricate designs towering over the place or an antique writing desk, crafted in a sophisticated way, serving its purpose as a corner table or a regular stand.
Be it the Victorian mannerisms religiously imparted in hill town schools or the perpetual obsession with the English language, the residue of bygone times still remains. The evening tea that is a sacred ritual to the mountains, the traditional wood-fired ovens are still in use in the bakeries across the district, the varikies that were made to suit the English palette, vegetables like carrot, potato and grains like barley introduced by early colonial settlers that dominate a local man’s plate and the exhaustive consumption of tea as a beverage are some of the food habits that are influenced.
The older generation donned their perfectly tailored suits with pride. Those employed in offices and schools wore trousers, whereas the agrarian men matched their tailored blazers with dhotis and shirts. For those born and raised in the early years of independence, much of what they saw, ate and dressed was influenced by a culture they observed very closely, a culture that invaded their lives. The boundary that prevailed between the self and the other became foggy.
A great deal of those aspects that resulted from cross-cultural influences remain today in the mountains and in the natives who migrated to the cities. With the defining boundaries having been lost many generations ago, we do not know where the self begins and where the other ends.
A content editor with a business strategy firm, Monisha finds solace in words. Though a post-graduate in biotechnology, her love for the craft propelled her in a direction far from research. Her essays have been published by New Asian Writing, The Curious Reader, Kitaab, Spacebar Magazine and Feminism in India. Her works of fiction have been published by Bengaluru Review, The Punch Magazine, Phenomenal Literature (Vol.4 No.1), Active Muse, Indian Ruminations, Asian Extracts, The Universe Journal, Storizen Magazine and Jotted. Her work was a part of the anthology “Narratives in Domestic Violence” by the International Human Rights Arts Festival. She is passionate about travelling and considers coffee the elixir of life. From being the girl who buried her nose in books to the woman who chose a career with words, bidding farewell to monetary growth and a mother who chose alternate education for her daughter, she has always been a blahcksheep.